Most of us know Lake Washington as a beautiful, sparkling recreational playground and aesthetic joy that contributes incalculably to Kirkland’s exceptional quality of life, but as recently as the 1960s, its future was far from certain.
The massive, mile-high Vashon Glacier scooped out the lake about 16,000 years ago as it scoured several deep troughs during its slow, northward retreat as the last ice age ended—troughs which became Puget Sound and lakes Sammamish and Washington. At first, saltwater filled Lake Washington’s banks, but in time, erosion sealed that connection. Classified as a ribbon lake, it was originally fed at the north tip by the Sammamish River and drained at the south tip by the now-extinct Black River.
Over millennia, indigenous hunter-gatherer bands camped and foraged on its banks but left little archeological record. It was first described glowingly in 1850 by Isaac Ebey as he explored Puget Sound country in a cedar dugout canoe as a large, clear, deep lake surrounded by heavy forests of cedar, fir, maple and ash.
The 1860s brought activity to the lake’s east shore wilderness when Government Land Office surveyors discovered coal veins near today’s Newcastle, but the land comprising today’s City of Kirkland did not open for homesteading until 1870. In the late 1880s, publisher and political boss S.J. Leigh Hunt convinced English steel manufacturer Peter Kirk to join forces in building an envisioned manufacturing company town on the lake. The town, Kirkland, was platted in 1888. The enterprise failed, but the mill was partially constructed on Rose Hill, near today’s Costco, and never produced any steel. Despite that, Kirkland slowly grew.
Early residents often used it to dump their raw sewage. Photos of Kirkland’s earliest waterfront commercial structures clearly depict attached outhouses—from which waste dropped straight into the lake.
Springs originally supplied Seattle’s drinking water, but by the early 1880s, the fledgling sawmill town’s population growth demanded more fresh water than the springs could provide. Seattle needed a large, reliable source of fresh water, so leaders turned to Lake Washington. In 1884, Seattle’s Spring Hill Water Company constructed a pump facility on the lakeshore in today’s Mount Baker Park, and it pumped 1.5 to 2 million gallons daily into its Beacon Hill reservoir. The city purchased the pumphouse and related infrastructure in 1889 and increased its daily pumping capacity to 7 million gallons. That year, professor James Parkinson conducted a water quality study and warned of rising lake pollution levels. He urged that sewage be diverted from the lake into Puget Sound, but his warning went unheeded. Seattle relied on the lake for its water until 1901, when it switched over to the Cedar River.
So, for about 16 years, Seattle was using the lake simultaneously as both a drinking water source and raw sewage depository!
The lake changed dramatically in 1916 when the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks opened, connecting it and Lake Union to Puget Sound. The lake’s level dropped about 9 feet, causing the Black River, which drained the lake, to dry up and the Cedar River, which previously fed the Black, was diverted into the lake.
The 1920–'30s brought more development, and the Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge’s (aka Mercer Island Floating Bridge) opening in 1940 brought rural eastside real estate, which previously required a 30- to 45-minute ferry ride from Seattle, to just minutes away by auto.
The lake hosted substantial industrial activity as well, including several big sawmills, and Boeing and Paccar plants in Renton; Bellevue served as winter tie-up for Alaskan whaling vessels; Naval Air Station Seattle was at Sand Point; and the Kirkland-area waterfront had the Matzen Woolen Mill, Ballinger Boat Works and the Lake Washington Shipyards.
World War II brought Kirkland sizable and unexpected population growth, thanks to substantial US Navy contracts awarded to the Lake Washington Shipyards—located at today’s Carillon Point—which produced primarily seaplane tenders. A smaller operation, Kirkland Marine Construction, located near today’s Brink Park, built 38-foot wooden picket boats for the US Coast Guard.
Kirkland and Houghton, then separately incorporated towns, had populations of about 2,000 and 1,000, respectively, when the war began. War workers flooded the area, and housing them all was a huge challenge. The federal government hastily constructed three housing projects, and some homeowners rented out extra rooms and even modified chicken coops to house war workers, many of whom had journeyed far, from states like Oklahoma and Arkansas.
This wartime population boom quickly outgrew existing sanitation infrastructure, most of which was septic, and sewage overflowed into the lake or was simply dumped there. Drinking water and beach contamination were commonplace. One chemist analyzing the water in Yarrow Bay in 1942 for the government reportedly declared: “My God, this is almost pure urine!”
In 1943 the city of Kirkland constructed a small sewage treatment plant on Central Way between Main and Third streets. It discharged treated sewage via an outfall extending out about 200 feet into Moss Bay. After the war and into the booming 1950s, sewage disposal was an unglamorous but important issue for lakeside communities, which pumped treated sewage into the lake. Though treated, it still contained phosphorus, upon which nuisance algae feed, so exploding algae and zooplankton levels caused frequent beach closures, darkened lake water and large, floating patches of “scum” which washed ashore to rot and stink.
So, the lake was a mess, but what to do? Sewage disposal was a chore handled mostly by the individual cities, and getting the leaders to agree to cooperate on public works projects was at best a herculean task. The solution materialized in the form of the Metropolitan Plan, a 1958 county-wide ballot measure that would, among other things, create a new legal entity to take a regional approach and end the pumping of treated sewage into the lake.
Kirkland’s (then directly elected) Mayor Byron Baggaley and seven city council members voted unanimously to oppose the plan. They quite reasonably feared that Kirkland and other smaller Lake Washington communities would not have fair representation within the new metropolitan-district corporation the ballot measure sought to authorize. And who would compensate Kirkland for scrapping its existing $300,000 sewage treatment plant, they asked? Eastside communities’ distrust of Seattle was already a huge issue, stemming from various earlier Machiavellian political maneuverings associated with securing and financing a second floating bridge across the lake, which would open five years later, in 1963.
The measure did pass, however, and Metro came into being. Treated sewage continued to be pumped into the lake until 1963, but for the next five years, Metro installed more than 100 miles of large trunk lines and interceptors to carry sewage to substantial treatment plants located at Seattle’s West Point and in Renton. By 1968, what had been a daily 20-million-gallon treated sewage discharge into the lake had dropped to zero. Algae plummeted, and researchers say their levels have been relatively insignificant since 1976.
While there have been subsequent and infrequent localized beach closures—like those due to goose waste in and around Juanita Beach during the 1990s—the days of widespread and regular beach closures due to health-endangering algae and zooplankton contamination are just hazy memories of a half-century ago. Lake Washington remains an ecological triumph, the world’s most studied and imitated example of successful lake restoration achieved by diverting sewage.